Fairfield Canoe Club
2019 Centenary Year

History snippet 35 – ‘The Skeleton in the Closet ‘ is  explained

Frames and rib bands of new canoe

It transpires that this ‘skeleton’ is the ‘mould’ for a new canoe. We could not fathom how the mould could be removed if the canoe was built on the outside of the mould, as one does for a fibreglass canoe. All is revealed in a three-part series published in 1934 in The Age newspaper…..the canoe is built insidethe mould instead!


A planked canoe is built in several stages.  Temporary mould of crosswise frames of the correct shape, and lengthwise rib bands is made. Ribs are steamed to shape inside the mould. Planks are laid along the outside of the mould, and nailed to the ribs, rib bands being removed as they are displaced by planks. The ends arte shaped and all the fittings are added. The frames are removed and the whole is covered with calico or duck and painted.

Canoe at the club

Interestingly, the green Sierak canoe pictured above at our Centenary Celebration is just such a ‘planked canoe construction’.

The Age series describes “How to Build a Fast Cruiser for Christmas”. As the articles were published in late August a keen team should have a cruising canoe completed by Christmas, or perhaps even for the FCC Christmas Party on Sunday December 1st?!

Interested parties may enjoy reading the attached transcription of the relevant articles from 85 years ago.

It is noted that Mr.G.Varcoe (the author of the article) was an Essendon Canoe Club Member and a regular top finisher in canoe events of the day. He is recorded in the 1928 ANA Regatta results as a member of an Essendon crew coming second to our FCC champion four of: A.Lucke, R.Burgin, F.Taylor & H de la Rue.



Published weekly in The Age in August, 1934

In the several types of canoes described in this section we have not yet dealt with a real cruising canoe – one in which three or more boys can make a comfortable tour. The plans supplied are for a 16-foot planked canoe, a type designed and proved by the Essendon canoe Club and prepared by a club member, Mr G. Varcoe, 108 Park Street, Moonee ponds. He states that many boys have built this canoe without previous experience; if you have difficulty with any part or in obtaining materials he will be glad to reply if a stamped envelope is forwarded. The complete cost of the canoe is about £7, and this design is suitable for rivers and beaches, and paddling and sailing. It is a “safe” canoe, but for all that, canoeing is a sport for good swimmers only.


Planks, 20  17ft lengths of 3x3-16 Borneo cedar, Huon pine or kauri

Ribs, 50 4ft 3 in. lengths of 1 ¼ x 3-16thblackwood or hardwood

Frames, 40 feet of 4 x 5/8 Baltic pine or scrap timber

Rib bands, 14 17-ft lengths of 1 x 1/2 hardwood

Stems, 4 4-ft lengths of 1 x 3/4 blackwood bent on edge

Mould foundation, 2 16-ft lengths of 3 x 1 1/4 hardwood

Thwarts, out of 3 x 1. Seats of 1 x ¼. Deck supports, etc, blocks 1 x 1 ¾, all out of 9 feet of 6 x 1 Kauri or Huon pine.

Gunwales, 2 x 18ft. lengths of 1 x 1 ½, kauri or hardwood

Keel, 16ft of 1 x ¾ kauri

Decks, 8 feet of 8 x 2/5, same timber as planks.

Canvas, 6 yards of 8-oz white duck 72 inch width.

Brass, 8ft of 11/4-in. half round

Timber to be selected and well seasoned except for rib bands and frames.


Frames, 1lb. 2-in steel wire nails.

Rib bands to frames and ribs; planks to frames, 1lb 1-in wire nails

Foundation timbers to frames, 2-in. wire nails

Planks to ribs, 3lb.3/4-in. 17-guage flathead copper nails.

Blocks, 1/2lb. 2-in. 15 gauge flat-head copper nails.

Thwarts, seats, &c. to block, 2 doz. 2-in medium-gauge brass screws (round heads).

Planks to stems, 6doz. ¾-in. countersunk medium-gauge brass screws.

Keel and gunwales, 6 doz. 1 ¼-in. medium-gauge countersunk or round-head brass screws.

Outer stems, 11/2 doz. 1 ¾-in. medium-gauge round or CS-head brass screws.

Decks to supports, 3 doz. 3/4–in. round-head medium-gauge brass screws.

Brass to stems and keel, 1 ½ doz. Light-gauge ¾-in. C.S. brass screws.

A planked canoe is built in several stages.  Temporary mould of crosswise frames of the correct shape, and lengthwise rib bands is made. Ribs are steamed to shape inside the mould. Planks ae laid along the outside of the mould, and nailed to the ribs, rib bands being removed as they are displaced by planks. The ends arte shaped and all the fittings are added. The frames are removed and the whole is covered with calico or duck and painted.




In Fig.1 the shapes of the frames are shown. These are cross sections of the canoe at various spacings along its length. Draw them out to full size on separate sheets of strong brown paper. Cut the shapes out. Make up frames as illustrated in Fig.2, from timber 4.in.x ¾.in. All nails should be driven right through and bent over. Make one frame to correspond with shape No. 1 and two of each of the other shapes. Number the frames as shown. Attach levelling strips of the widths given to the tops of the frames so that the height of each frame plus levelling strip is equal. Mark the centres of all the frames, levelling strips, rib bands and mould foundation timbers.

In assembling the mould no nails should be driven right home as they must be removed later. Nail frame No.1 to the mould foundation timbers so that they are six or eight inches on either side of the centre of the frame and on the top of the levelling piece.


Nails should be driven at an angle through the levelling strips into the foundation. See that the frame is at right angles to the timbers, and that they are parallel. Nail frames No. 2, one each side of frame No. 1, to the timbers at the distance given. Attach the balance of the frames similarly. Nail two rib bands along the frames one each side of the centre line and four or five inches away from it at frame No 1, and three or four inches away at the last frame. These rib bands are at the bottom of the frames (opposite side to the foundation timbers). Keep the frames the correct distance apart. Nail two rib bands along the frames at the end of the curve, one each side. Check the distance between frames just where the gunwales will be. Stretch a cord above the centre lines of the frames. If the mould is out of alignment, alter it. Now space out the rib bands approximately equally around the frames and nail each one. Check the alignment constantly.

The ribs are easily bent, as they lose all their elasticity when being steamed. Bending must be done evenly or kinks will occur. Treat the timber like tough leather. Bend it as much as possible in your hands. It should bend very easily when sufficiently steamed. To make a steam box, obtain about five feet of galvanized iron pipe 4 inches diameter and close it at one end with a piece of iron soldered across. Fill this with water and soak in it for one or two days as many ribs as will fit in. Tie about 1 foot of string to one end of each rib and leave it out of the tube. Have the mould right away up on trestles or the floor. Mark the positions of the ribs. They are spaced 4 inches apart. Place the steaming tube, about ¾ full of water, over a fire and bring the water to the boil and keeping it boiling for half an hour. The open end of the tube should be covered with cloth to conserve the steam. Take a rib from the tube and roughly bend it to shape with an even pressure of the hands. Continue the bending inside the mould. See that it touches or comes within 1/8 inch of each rib band. Temporarily nail it at each end to the topmost rib band. Continue with the other ribs until at about three or four feet from midships the tapering shape of the mould causes one edge of each rib to stand away from the rib bands at the sides. Here the tops of the ribs may be laid back a little closer to midships to overcome this effect. The ribs within the last two feet or so of each end may be kinked at the centre to take the bend. If difficulty arises in steaming them near the ends, a few extra ribs may be steamed nearer midships, and later on these may be cut and placed in position at the end. Cut the ends of the ribs to within a few inches of the topmost rib band and allow for a rising curve between the frame nearest the end, and the end. Properly space out the ribs over the greater portion of the boat, space the rest when necessary.

Directions will be continued nest week.




Select two straight planks, and taper them evenly towards each end so that they conform approximately to the following measurements as regards width:- At frame No1, 2 7/8 in: frame No 2, 2 11/16thin.; frame No3, 2 1/16thin.; frame No4, 1 3/8in.; at end of stern, 1 ½ in.. Turn the mould upside down, and lay the two planks along the bottom, tapered edges together and lying along the centre line of the mould. Nail the planks to the ribs with copper nails, as in Fig.6. Each hole should be drilled first – a fine steel wire nail makes an excellent bit- and the nail tapped through from the plank to the ribs, a weight being held against the head of the nail – say the head of a cold chisel – and the point tapped over and back into the rib at a slight angle to the grain of the rib, at about 30deg. to 45 deg.  Nail thus to within about four feet of each end. Dress two stem pieces approximately to the shape shown. Cut off to leave two ft. along the lower arm, or sufficient to extend back to the nearest frame. Fit the stem pieces to the planks, constantly checking the alignment in all directions.


Dress up both the planks and the stem to the correct shape – variation from the plans will be necessary – and screw through from the planks to the stems at intervals of three to four inches. Firmly attach the stem to the mould. Nail these planks to as many ribs as possible up to the end of the stem.

Now plane up several more planks on one or both edges as required, and nail to the ribs, and temporarily attach to the stems. Cut the ends off near the stems. The rib bands are taken from the mould where necessary. A gap up to one sixteenth of an inch may be left between planks. Temporarily nail each plank to the frames with one steel nail. At the sharpest section of the bend around the mould, called the bilge, a specially shaped plank must be added. Taper this so that it fits against its neighbour without any distortion lengthwise, and so that it leaves a regular curved edge for the following plank. If it will not bend easily it should be covered with one or two layers of cloth and a layer of waterproof material. Hot water is applied to the absorbent material until the plank will bend to shape. The waterproof cover is used to conserve the water and heat. Possibly two planks may need to be treated on each side. Continue with the tapered planks as described in the plan until only one more is required to bring the planking to the level of the tops of the moulds. Do not taper this, but roughly cut it to fit the curve formed by the tops of the frames, and then nail it into position. Take the ribs at the ends of the mould, and the extra ones which were steamed into it elsewhere and cut each into halves. Carefully fit these into the canoe at the ends, cutting and nailing each into its correct position and shape. Each cut end should fit neatly against the stem piece. Do not distort the planks in fitting these ribs.

Near the end of the canoe the weight may be held lightly against the point of the nails and the hammering done from the outside. Ribs which would have been placed in the positions occupied by frames or nails which would have been awkwardly clenched (bent) are left until the frames are taken from the canoe.

Check the stems again for alignment and when correct the planks may be screwed to them. Trim the ends of the planks flush with the outer edge of the stems. Build up the rising curves at the ends of the canoe.




Cut four blocks for thwarts, four for seats and four for decks (Fig 4), and nail through the ribs and planks – nails to be clenched. Thwart blocks, two or three inches down from the top of the side; seats, eight of ten inches above the bottom; deck blocks, three-quarters of an inch below the rising curve at the ends of the canoe. Make the seats and thwarts, and screw into position. Also screw into position a block one inch thick at the extreme end behind the stem, and level with the top of the planking. The frames may be removed. Put in all the ribs or blocks which were left out on account of the frames, and clench all of the nails. Smooth up the outside of the planking with a rasp and coarse sandpaper, then, trim the ends square with a spokeshave or plane.

Directions will conclude next week.

Dissolve 7lb. of finely powdered marine glue in one to two pints of lacquer thinner, for which from several hours to a day may be required. Take off the free thinner which comes to the top after the mixture stands, and then mix up equal quantities of medium and thick solutions. (Medium is the consistency of ordinary paint, and thick is such that it will flow from a brush very slowly). Soak the canvas in water and dry it once or twice, and then iron it. Give the outside of the hull a liberal coat of the thin mixture, and when it has almost dried follow it with a liberal coat of thick mixture. Retain only about a cupful of the mixture. Wait a few minutes, and then lay the canvas over the hull, centre line of canvas to centre line of hull (See Fig 7). Stretch from midships to A at each end and temporarily tack. Stretch from midships towards the ends along the arrows in Fig 9 until A – E  is reached. Stretch from A – D and then cut the canvas along the centre line to A. On one side of the canoe stretch along the direction of the curved arrows, and tack at intervals of two inches around the stems. Cut off the surplus canvas at the ends, and give that covering the stems a coat of the thick mixture of glue. Then stretch, tack and cut the canvas from the other side similarly. Wait until the glue becomes very sticky, and then restretch around the hull from A – E to A –E. The glue will set in one or two days. Give the canvas a liberal coat of white lead (two parts) red lead (one part) in raw linseed oil and a small quantity of turpentine. Follow with a thicker mixture and allow it to dry thoroughly.


Dress the gunwales, outer stems and keel. The outer edge of gunwales at the widest part is ½ inch thick; the ends are 1 inch wide, and here also outer edge is ¾ inch thick. (See Fig 8). The taper of the gunwales commences about three feet from midships. Dress the keel and outer stems to the shape in Fig.8, with the lower edge 3/8inch wide. Screw all these parts through from the inside of the canoe. The ends of the keel are bevelled at an angle of about 45 deg., and fitted to the ends of the outer stems, which are cut to shape. The gunwales are screwed from midships towards the ends. They are wrapped in absorbent material, and treated with hot water to take up the upward curve, but are otherwise sprung to shape. All these parts should be screwed at intervals not more than 8 inches. The tops of the ribs and the edge of the top plank are now trimmed flush with the gunwales. The gunwales are now screwed to the two small blocks next to the stems from the outside, with one or two larger screws at each point. The ends of the gunwales and stems should be neatly trimmed. Screw strips of timber three-quarters of an inch thick across the deck supports at intervals of six or eight inches. The longest of these should be cut to a curve, as seen in the plans.

The deck is made of two strips of thin timber, one quarter of an inch to three-eighths of an inch thick, screwed lengthwise to these supports. The seam, which should be near the centre line of , should be covered by another strip tapering from three inches to one inch screwed over them. A piece of rib is fitted as a coaming around the curved end of the deck. The brass is screwed around the stems and to part of the keel at intervals of about six inches. One end is brought back a few inches over the cover strip of the deck.

The whole canoe is sandpapered, first with coarse and then with fine. The interior is given one or two coats of raw linseed oil, and then two of good marine varnish. The outside is given a few more coats of the lead and oil mixture with rubbing down until smooth; then two of thinned paint of the correct color, and one of varnish or weatherproof oil; or only one coat of thinned paint and one of the prepared paint.


 "Go to it, chaps"!





Follow us on social media